I write novels that are set in faraway times and places because I am fascinated with context. We tend to see the world from the place where we’re standing and from one angle. When you step back from your place and time you get a different picture. The world is inhabited not just by individuals but by groups of individuals—cultures—that are defined by the languages they speak and the stories they tell. Like individual humans, cultures encounter each other and what happens next is the drama of history. Sometimes one culture dominates another. Sometimes two cultures fall in love, mate, and beget child cultures.
The story of my novel INTO THE UNBOUNDED NIGHT, due out September 1, 2020, unfolds during the First Century Roman Empire. Rome had extended its power throughout most of the known world and was continuing to push further. INTO THE UNBOUNDED NIGHT explores how this extension affected some of the cultures Rome encountered—the Celts of Britannia, the “Africans” of Carthage, and Judeans and Galileans in what we might call “the land of the monotheists,” which I will briefly discuss here.
I use this term rather than “Israel” because there was no Israel in the time of the Roman occupation except in the reminiscence of the people who lived there. Using the “divide and conquer” strategy, the Romans had carved out several provinces: Idumea, the Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and others, and supported the rule of an Idumean family, the family of Herod, who descended not from a monotheistic culture but from a polytheistic one and were therefore regarded as outsiders by Judeans and others in the area. This is one reason among many for the negative portrayals of “Herod” in both the Talmud and the Christian New Testament.
Nor do I use the term “Judaism” in my novel. It seems to me that “Judaism” did not exist, either. Even the idea of “religion” was foreign to the monotheists. “Religion” derives from a Latin term (religio, religionis) that refers to a belief system and a set of ritual practices. There is no word in ancient Hebrew for "religion." The culture that thought of themselves as descending from Moses via David thought of themselves more as a people, a nation, and heirs of a way of seeing history--with directionality and moral purpose.
They were diverse—not “Jews” but Judeans, Galileans, etc. The Samaritans had their own temple, rejecting the primacy of the Great Temple of Jerusalem. Galileans, too—including Jesus and many of the rabbis—viewed the power of the Temple Priests in Jerusalem with suspicion, if only because the Temple priests were supported by Herod, who was supported by Rome, which was seen as a brutal occupier.
But the Temple of Jerusalem, with its sacrificial practices (which very much resembled those of Rome) retained a powerful allure, if only because of the central role it had played in the history of Israel. Even rabbis who objected to the power of the Temple priests had to work with them in order to produce effective guidance—i.e., to rule on the increasingly narrow set of legal issues where Roman law did not pertain.
By the way, INTO THE UNBOUNDED NIGHT includes a scene (the judgment of Stephanos, whom Christians call St. Stephen) where the distinction between Roman law and Judean law is crucial. The failure to understand this distinction has given rise to dangerously misleading interpretations of this event.
The revolt of the Zealots against Rome in 69—70 AD, and its outcome, radically altered the identity of the monotheists. In the end, the Romans destroyed the Great Temple. The central modalities of monotheistic religious practice were forever disrupted, and the rabbis had to reinvent their tradition, placing the Torah narrative front and center and de-emphasizing sacrifice and other Temple rituals.
A central character in this development was a man named Yohanan, son of Zakkai—who is also, therefore, one of the central characters in INTO THE UNBOUNDED NIGHT. At the same time, another group of rabbis, led by Saul of Tarsus, took a different path, creating a distinct flavor of the Israelite tradition—today known as Christianity.
As a result of researching and writing INTO THE UNBOUNDED NIGHT—and especially, of living with Yohanan son of Zakkai, Saul of Tarsus, the Roman general (and later emperor) Vespasian, and a young woman from Britannia known as Aislin—I no longer see “Judaism” and “Christianity” as different religions. I see them, rather, as siblings in the family of cultures. You can focus on the differences but most of their DNA is shared.
They say reading novels increases a person's empathy. The reader develops the ability to crawl into other people's skins. I would add that novels allow us to explore cultures and to see our own in a broader context. In the end, one hopes that this long-view way of seeing things enhances mutual understanding.
Mitchell James Kaplan graduated with honors in English Literature from Yale University. After college, Kaplan lived in Paris, France, where he worked as a translator, then in Southern California, where he worked as a screenwriter and in film production. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his family and two cats.